Sunday, March 24, 2013

Life, Death, Religion and the Uses of Literacy

Nothing changes. Not really. Here I am, a grown man, heading towards retirement, having to apologize for handing my essay in late. Again. The sordid truth is inescapable. My pathetic little life is largely taken up, not with some titanic struggle between the forces of good and evil, but with a grubby little squabble between the forces of indolence and vanity. Whenever you surf in only to find the cupboard bare you can be smugly confident of the fact that my spirit is encased in the leaden suit of "why bother?" If you are reading this at all, it is because, for a moment at least, my desire to appear interesting and clever, not least to myself, has momentarily allowed me to escape the Jupiter-gravity of indifference.

We are strange creatures. (I'm assuming here that most people are pretty much like me, no more than a working hypothesis.) For all that we claim to love life, for all that we desire to live life to the full etc., we remain dull and inert and, what's worst, that is our preferred option. Self-satisfiedly unfullfilled we bumble through life in a rather non-specific way, contriving to chloroform our minds to the inevitability of our own demise. Occasionally, however, reality breaks through.

In November my sister-in law Ann died aged 75. She had been suffering from pancreatic cancer. She had outlived the original prognosis by an astonishing 18 months, but finally succumbed to complications following a bout of pleurisy. She had been extraordinarily courageous, as far as possible shielding her family from the implications of her own condition. Without question her religious faith was a source of strength at the end. There had been times when we had found her sentimental Catholicism rather cloying. I shamefacedly recall one occasion a few years ago when, my debating skills fuelled by an excessive intake of alcohol, I loudly demolished, as I thought it, the very fundament of her convictions. But faith is not mocked. One can't help thinking that the object of faith is really utterly secondary to the fact of faith itself. An innate sense that my life is not mine, but that I partake of a life infinitely greater than my confused and contradictory thinking can comprehend, is a jewel beyond price. In fact, Arnold Toynbee'in his "A Study of History" maintains that civilisation itself is ultimately dependent on a critical mass of individuals consciously acknowledging their subservience to greater reality.

The funeral was held at the Church of Our Most Holy Redeemer and St. Thomas More in Cheyne Row, Chelsea. You could tell it was Chelsea by the the number of terrain-going vehicules on growth hormones parked in the street. Off-road capability is essential in some of the less well-maintained streets of the borough, apparently. Funerals are strange things. So many contradictory emotions are stirred up simultaneously: bewilderment at the irretrievable nature of death, sadness at the loss of a loved one, curiosity about the fellow mourners, anxiety about the protocol, the order of service, where exactly to sit, I'm I looking alright? am I posh enough for Chelsea? the unmitigated pleasure of family reunion, our judgement of the priest, the awkward smiling at people you might half recognize or don't know at all... At the back of the church I was thrilled to discover a Danish friend of Ann's with whom I was able to engage in what, for me, has become an increasing and therefore exciting rarity, a conversation in Danish. She was married to a Scotsman. What a coincidence! I too am of Dano-Scots pedigree! This trivial pleasure momentarily trumped any affectation of funereal solemnity...

The service itself was, mercifully, a dignified affair, without the crass soppiness which all too often informs these occasions. Ann's husband spoke a touching tribute in Ann's memory. Clive is an Arabic scholar. He has had a genuinely interesting career in the British Council, stationed in a series of Arab countries. Their favourite posting was the Yemen. Ann, a natural raconteuse, would tell the most hilarious stories of their adventures there. That for me will be my abiding memory of Ann. She was fun. Fun is a frequently underestimated quality, all too often misinterpreted as irresponsibility - by those who fear it most, of course, the pompous and the self-important. An inwardly trembling but outwardly very poised Carol read from the second letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians, an awful, literal-minded thing about God judging your sins and deciding your final destination etc. You can't help thinking that Paul is at the root of a terrible misunderstanding about Christianity introduced right at the start. For me there is really only one sin: the blind, unreflected conviction of the self-sufficiency of our footling and confused personalities...

Death. A violent intrusion of real reality into the after-dinner snooze of our ordinary consciousness. The ritual of funeral both accentuates and distracts from that reality. While the solemnity of the occasion invites us to reflect on the nature of our own mortality, the familiarity of established ritual and the ordered process of ceremony contrive to absorb an appalling and baffling shock back into the pedestrian, workaday world in which we affect to enjoy a semblance of control. Dazed, uplifted, grieving, curious, dying for a drink, we tumbled out of the church and stumbled down to the crypt which had been conveniently remodelled as a reception area. Magnolia walls and green carpet failed to mask that special odeur of sexless sanctity and ecclesiastical mediocrity. All tucked unhesitatingly into the sandwiches and sausage rolls washed down with lashings of cheap red. I was cornered by K., an old friend of the family. A retired private doctor in his seventies, he has something of the mountebank about him, a sort of Leslie Phillips with a dubious licence to practice medicine. Sensing the naughty schoolboy in me, he proceeded to regale me with the stock repertoire of his raconteurship: spiffing wheezes and merry japes implicitly testifying to his debonair insouciance and irreducible class-consciousness. He was almost certainly the most entertaining conversationalist in the room, but I had finally to extricate myself in order to "mix". Invisible currents and eddies stranded me by the tea bar, where I got to talking to Carol's cousins, the Manchester O'Callaghans. Straightforward and Northern, with a dash of Irish Catholicism, the chat was easy. But some anomolous back-wash dragged me away and I found myself trapped in a side-pool, bumping and rebumping (metaphorically) up against a lump of a bore, a sexless square-shaped matron with a superior manner and an affected voice:

 "How do you know Anne and Clive?" I inquired politely.
"We were out in the Yemen together."
"Gosh, how interesting! Anne and Clive loved it out there. Are you British Council then?"
"[Patronising nasal snorting] No, my husband was with the diplomatic service."
"Really? But you're back in England now I take it. I suppose it must be difficult to settle having spent the best part of your life abroad." I was manoeuvering to establish a bond of shared experience by playing the ex-pat card.
" Well, actually, we're very pleased to be back in London. Friends, cultural life, you know..."
"Oh, that's nice to hear. But isn't it difficult living in London? Where do you live in fact?"
"That's very convenient!"
"Yes it is."
"Still, don't you miss abroad? I've lived abroad nearly all my adult life. I think I'd find it hard to go back to England."
"No, but we've only recently returned from a posting to Vienna."
"How exciting! Such a contrast to the Yemen!"
"My husband was working for the UNXYZ. A tremendous responsibility."
"I can imagine. Still, Vienna is one of the great cultural capitals of the world." [Gushingly] "So many of my culture-heros are part of that great pre-war Viennese intellectual fact I'm busy reading a collection of essays by Stefan Zweig. Good for my German! Ha ha, ha!" [Why, why, why, why, why!]
"Well, yes, but in a way the work of post-war writers is more culturally relevant. X for example. His plays are an excoriating criticism of the modern Austrian state. You are familiar with X's work?"
"Er, well, not as such..."
"I'm surprised. I don't think you can really claim to any understanding of Austria today without a thorough reading of X."
"I'm so grateful to you for putting me on to X. He'll obviously be my bedside reading for the next few months! Look, it's been great talking to you, but I'd better get back to my wife. Don't want her feeling neglected!"

And so we conclude: Death is inescapable, but we are too distracted and contradictory to come to any sort of understanding of what that implies. That religion, as practiced, just feeds into our inner confusion. That Art and Literature, however revolutionary in intent, are ultimately just chips in a game of social one-upmanship.

Kyrie Eleison.


Friday, October 26, 2012

Trautmann's Journey

My God! It's almost two months since my new year's blog resolution, which means I'm already behind on my own self-imposed discipline of at least one article a month. But to hell with it! Here goes...

Let me start by explaining something: my name is ASBO and I am a Canoholic. This is to say that I suffer from the insane delusion that there is a Canon of Great Works of Literature which I really must read Before I Die. It's a sort of set book-itis. If I arrive at the Pearly Gates unable to answer the essay questions on Proust/Rilke/Joyce etc. etc... St. Peter will find me out and condemn me to a Hell of Detention where, prodded by a thousand literary devils insisting on relevant quotations and close reference to the text, I shall fail and refail my examination for all eternity.

Empty ambitions of virtue, however, serve largely to nourish its opposite and it was the vicious miscreant in me, who, in an idle half-hour in the staff lending library, fell upon "Trautmann's Journey - From Hitler Youth to FA Cup Legend" by Catrine Clay. Footy and Swastikas! Irresistible really! Suck it up, Jack Ralphs! (my old English teacher). It tells the story of the great Bert Trautmann, who came to England as a German prisoner of war and ended up playing in goal for Manchester City. As it happens, I am old enough to just about remember Bert Trautmann because he played for Manchester City until 1964, around the time that I was becoming a sentient being as far as football was concerned.

[Footnote: I was 12 years old at the time. I had already been going to games with my father for a couple of years. Chelsea and Fulham mostly, as they were most easily accessible from our home in Ealing. I was precociously knowledgable of the principle teams, their nicknames and the names of their grounds from a card game I played with my best friend, Nick Berg (Hi Nick, if you're out there!) For some unknown reason Everton, "the Toffees", Goodison Park particularly sticks in the mind or even the teeth! As for watching games, I seem to remember Fulham and Craven Cottage best. My father was a big fan of Johnny Haynes and took great delight in pointing out to me how he would pass into spaces which only more talented players than his team-mates could anticipate. Who were they? Tosh Chamberlain possibly? Jimmy Hill who I might just have caught the tail end of? I do remember him taking over as Coventry's manager, because I once took a bus, by myself, to Brentford to watch them play. I couldn't have been more than 11! The freedom of a more innocent age! Back with Fulham, there was definitely a Tony Macedo who played in goal. I remember a game when he broke or dislocated his arm. It was the era before substitutes and he bravely continued playing on the wing while one of the outfield players stood in for him in goal. George Cohen must have been around at the time, but I can't say I remember him. Actually, I seem to remember more of the Chelsea players of that era. The aspirated half-back line of Hollins, Hinton, Harris. Peter Bonetti. Terry Venables even. I'm fairly certain that we went to see a Second Division match between Chelsea and Liverpool! Dad, who obviously had a thing about cultured inside forwards, suggested that I look and learn from the play of Liverpool's Jimmy Melia. Thinking back, football was pretty central to our lives. Certainly, my younger brother and I spent a good deal of our time playing it. In the interminable games we played up at Hangar Hill Park, Colin would play in goal wearing the green keeper's jersey my Granny had knitted him. Spectacular diving was his particular forte. He used to arrive home covered in mud, but always managed to grin his way out of trouble. As for Bert Trautmann, I can best remember him from spectacular diving photographs in my father's copy of "The Clown Prince of Soccer" a biography of the great Len Shackleton, who was probably Dad's favourite ever player.]

Getting back to"Trautmann's Journey", however, it is not so much a tale of football as a tale of redemption through football. Bert Trautmann became a football legend when he broke his neck in the 1956 FA Cup final and played on. But the story of how he got there was no less amazing. He grew up in Nazi Germany, where his "Aryan" looks and athletic prowess made him a hero of the Hitler Youth. At the outbreak of the war he joined the Luftwaffe and fought with the Luftwaffe regiment against partisans on the Eastern front before volunteering to train as a parachutist. He then went on to fight in France and was finally made a prisoner of war as the allies invaded the heart of Germany. His positive treatment at the hands of his British captors seems to have opened his eyes to the possibility of a renewal of human decency. Upon his release he opted to stay on in England and his football career took off. He testifies himself to his conscious desire to be a "good German". Even today, he is still recognised and admired in Manchester. "Brits nicer than Germans" is a theme which is always like play well in the U.K. But for me, where the book excels is in the insight it gives into what it was like for ordinary people living under the Nazi regime. Born in 1923, Bernd (his real name) grew up in a modest working class environment in Bremen. His father had fought in the First war and, reading between the lines, seems to have suffered from chronic post traumatic stress disorder as a result. Bernd was a promising pupil at school, but with the advent of the Nazis and their emphasis on athleticism, he was tacitly encouraged to focus on sports to the detriment of his lessons. Effectively compelled to join the Hitler Youth, Bernd revelled in the opportunity to enjoy the outdoor life and unlimited games. He was specially selected to go on an extended Hitler Youth summer camp in Silesia. Ms. Clay poignantly describes his mother's heartbreak at losing her favourite son to the Hitlerian ideology. How she silently witnessed his tragic susceptibility to the flattering propaganda of race superiority, unable to speak out for fear of reprisals. Children were known to denounce their parents for harbouring "anti-german" sentiments.
At the outbreak of war, Berndt's mother wept at his volunteering for the Luftwaffe, while his otherwise distant father sought to convey to him the true horrific nature of war. But Berndt was already a creature of the regime, sold on a fantasy of his own heroism. He started out as a motor mechanic before being transferred to the Luftwaffe regiment. He fought partisans in occupied Russia then, as Ms. Clay describes it, virtually on a whim, trained as an elite paratrooper. As he fights in Normandy and then finally in Germany itself, we get a clear impression of the process of brutalisation which he undergoes, as, without any prospect of victory, the sheer habit of combat becomes a deadly and deadening end in itself. Captured by the British, he is profoundly grateful for the decent treatment he is given and intrigued by the relaxed and joky attitude of the enemy troops. It's almost as though then and here he undergoes a sort of Damascene conversion to the British way of being.

The football part of the book is, in truth, less interesting. Bernd, now Bert, had always been a talented and commited athlete, while his war experience had taught him utter fearlessness. It was these qualities together which made him such an exceptional goalkeeper. Throughout he seems quite openly to have seen his footballing in England as his way of repaying a debt. Ms. Clay writes with a natural simplicity of tone, which serves to bring out the essentially unpretentious nature of her subject. What in a way is weird is the utter ordinariness of the extraordinary events described - as if things have their own automatic inevitability, that, once triggered, the Nazi madness had to be acted out as a sort of ineluctable karma. It's difficult not to accept that, at a certain level, things do just happen and individuals have only a very limited influence on the way in which events unfurl. What "Trautmann's Journey" shows us is that there is inside us a grain of humility, an unaffected humanity, a sense of common decency which is infinitely more real than all our megalomaniac fantasies and that it is our duty, above all, to nurture these seemingly modest qualities if we are to hope to be able to live in anything like a civilised society.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

                               September 1st 2012

Dear Blog-fans,

I don't suppose anyone has noticed, but it's now more than three years since last I posted anything. The fact is I tripped over the Himalaya and it's taken me this long to get back on my feet. In the spring of 2009 I spent three weeks trekking in the Everest region of Nepal. A quite fantastic trip. Ideal raw-material for a blog entry, you would have thought. I had hoped, in fact, to develop the piece into something more than a mere diary entry. My hope was (I feel embarrassed writing this) to create a real work of art, a whole new literary genre in fact, combining an elegant mountain travelogue à la Frank Smythe, an ironic romp, a bit like the sort of thing Bill Bryson does, a diverging and diverting eighteenth century ramble in the manner of Lawrence Sterne, also a modernist stream-of-consciousness novel like Ulysses, say, all unobtrusively informed with the philosophical perspicacity and emotional sincerity of, well, Krishnamurti, for example. A dream formula. And a dream it has remained. All hubris brings its own nemesis. Mine has been to be confronted with the limits of my own writing technique and the, at times, unbearable lightness of my own literary voice. Is that voice really me? Who am I if I am not that voice? What am I other than what I can formulate in words? These are very real and immediate questions which you can't just verbalise your way out of. All at sea, doubting my capacity, questioning my motives, wracked by self-loathing, I surrendered to the tug of indolence and went under. If I resurface again now it is for three reasons: a) friends have very kindly urged me to keep at it, b) I have had great fun re-reading my old posts, and c) I suffer increasingly from a sort of obsessive compulsive disorder requiring me to impose some sort of discipline on the chaotic shambles of experience - which I suspect is what any artisitic endeavour is really all about.

So, I'm masking the Himalaya for the time being, and moving the bulk of my forces to easier terrain where they can deploy more effectively. I do not, however, rule out the possibility of a mopping-up operation at a later date!

September 1st is in many ways the real New Year's Day. So, here we go. Happy New Year! I'm posting this now. So I'm stuck with it. Hope you enjoy it even if I don't!


Saturday, March 07, 2009

Fighter Boys

"Bandits 5 o'clock!","Tally Ho chaps!","Rat-a-tat-tat!", "Eat lead, squarehead!","I think I got him, skipper!". Let's be quite honest about this. There's an eternal schoolboy in most of us (males, British, born within ten years of the end of the war) for whom dog-fights and vapour trails over the skies of Kent are utterly irresistible. It's not something we would readily admit to in sophisticated company, but hang sophistication, you'd need to be a particularly earth-bound soul for your heart not to be lifted by the soaring romance of the "Brylcreem Boys" in their Spitfires and Hurricanes. But my reversion to pre-adolescent type was triggered by pure accident (is there such a thing?) Let me explain...

Wandering the streets of Brussels one day, waiting for my car to be fixed, I came across the "Librairie de l'Escadron". Fronted by a profoundly banal newsagents, the back-room into which I was ushered by the conspiratorial owner was a veritable cornucopia of unacknowledgable delights. "Krigsporno" my brother calls it, using the impact-laden Danish expression. "War-porn" I suppose in English. Wall upon wall, row upon row of shelving was stacked high with books of military history. Even the gangways were virtually barricaded with sandbag piles of regimental memoirs and accounts of long-forgotten campaigns. There were whole redoubts of WWII literature including detailed monographs on uniforms, equipment and hardware etc. Each book was discretely wrapped in an individual transparent wrapper presumably to discourage obsessive drooling over some of the more uninhibited material. Clearing my throat rather awkwardly, I asked if I might be allowed to "bouqiner" - just poke around the shelves. With a knowing look I was left to my own devices. 15-20 minutes later I presented myself at the counter shyly proferring a copy of "The Eastern Front 1914-1918 - Suicide of the Empires" by Alan Clark. Pretty hard core really - a grisly, detailed account of the pointless slaughter of millions. Perfect! He's not really a likeable man, but Alan Clark the historian is irresistible. Energetic, yet elegant use of language, a firm grasp of the political issues, a clear understanding of military practicalities, eminently readable - I batted the whole thing off in the course of a quiet afternoon at work.

A couple of weeks later, again on some skimpy automotive pretext, I found myself ineluctably drawn back to the Librairie de l'Escadron. Having spent a good half hour poring over the shelves, I was too embarrassed not to buy something. I finally emerged clutching a copy of Patrick Bishop's "Fighter Boys - Saving Britain 1940". I raised a superior eyebrow at the blurb. "Unputdownable" was the considered view of Alistair Horne. But he was right. I was through it in a flash and regretted finishing. And not just because of the time-honoured combat clichés so beloved of afficionados of Commando Magazine and War Picture Library. The book does of course contain many gripping eyewitness accounts of aerial warfare, but the real achievement of "Fighter Boys" is the intelligent and sympathetic insight it gives us into the human reality of Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain. My father flew with the RAF during the war (although not in fighters). Britain's "Finest Hour" and the universe of ethical and national assumptions that it gave rise to, formed the unspoken yet omnipresent backdrop to my whole upbringing and education. Arguably the heroism of the Few artificially buttressed the sense of moral superiority of the Many for generations to come. We're still dining out on them today. The strange British attitude of condescension towards continental Europe is to a large degree based upon the unthinking assumption of superior martial prowess - "we won the war". What Patrick Bishop shows us is that it wasn't, isn't, really like that.

In 1940 the RAF was still a young service and relatively free of the class-consciousness which permeated the Army and the Navy. As the threat of war grew through the thirties, so the authorities recognised the need to train more pilots. Numerous schemes were devised to make it possible for young men from all walks of life to realise their ambition to fly an aeroplane. Technical ability took precedence over blue blood, while the blue uniform became the unmistakable livery of a new youthful aristocracy. 19 to 26 was the age bracket of the fighter pilots during the Battle of Britain - young even for a football team. They were an elite, the coolest guys in town. This was what my father wanted to be a part of when he joined up in 1941 - a band of airborne warrior-brothers, revelling in a classless confraternity, affecting a careless, cigarette-smoking nonchalance as they basked in the gratitude of the nation. But they had to be young: only that sense of youthful invulnerability could have enabled them to continue taking off time and time again to engage in the terrifying ordeal of aerial combat. Camaraderie, that sense of fellowship which is the special preserve of the young, was what kept them going. Expressions of jingoistic nationalism were treated with contempt. Losses were treated with a studied resignation. Fear was suppressed or even joked about: the nervous tingling of the anal sphinctre brought on by anxiety was known as "ring twitch". Drinking bouts were the preferred psychotherapy viewed as infinitely preferable to morbid introspection. Sincerity and decency were instinctively the qualities most demanded by the group ethic. Not to be "gen" guaranteed ostracisation. Those that survived the war often found it difficult to readapt to the habitual insincerities of civilian life. [I suspect that many regretted the sense of solidarity that permeated wartime society. I remember my mother-in-law speaking of how that special atmosphere evaporated almost the instant peace was declared.] While media-nationalism was ridiculed, love of country was undeniably a motivating force for many, reinforced by the fact of constantly flying over the map of England. When, after the Battle of Britain, the air-war moved to the continent, the sentiment was never quite the same.
The air defence of the Britain was almost certainly the country's most important contribution to the overall war effort, preserving as it did a vital jumping-off point for the re-invasion of Europe and the final destruction of the Nazi regime. It was probably more of a statistical exercise than we would really care to admit. It was a lot less about the courage of individual pilots or the shooting down of enemy planes than it was about maintaining a fighter command in being. No German invasion could be contemplated without first having obtained air superiority, which was why the British were so relieved when the Luftwaffe ceased attacking airfields in order to bomb London. Civilians were expendable, planes and pilots vital. There were many pilots who never made any "kills" at all. Some were unnecessarily shot down over-eagerly trying to "bag" their first enemy.
War is a terrible thing but it exerts an undeniable fascination - a fascination, we are bound to admit, with the imminence of death. How would I perform under such extreme circumstances? How would I confront the possibility, the likelihood even, of my own sudden extinction? I remember as a boy asking my father about his war-time experiences. Having trained in Canada, he joined Transport Command as a Navigator flying DC3's. He towed gliders at D-Day, Arnhem and the Rhine crossing. "What's it like when they shoot at you?" I asked. He answered directly and with brutal frankness: "You go in your pants".
[Footnote: The RAF uniform conveyed fabulous status during and even after the war. In the late forties my father was stationed in Copenhagen helping the Danes to redevelop civil aviation at Kastrup airport. It was at that time that he met my mother who was, I can't help suspecting, largely bowled over by the uniform. Who knows? Without that uniform I probably wouldn't be here today!]

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Some Thoughts on Virginia Woolf

Thinkin' ain't doin' me no good no
Thinkin' ain't doin' me no good no people
Thinkin' ain't doin' me no good no good
Joey Covington, Jefferson Airplane

Thanks to the liberating influence of Pierre Bayard (How to talk about Books you haven't Read), I am happy to confess to never having properly read Virginia Woolf. I have a vague recollection of, many moons ago, skimming through "The Waves". Since then I've had a couple of goes at "To the Lighthouse", each time getting stranded some third of the way through. But for all my inadequacies as a reader, like so many others, I cannot help being fascinated by the person of Virginia Woolf. Why? I'm sure it's because she presses so many of our socio-cultural buttons. Wonderfully well-connected, yet with unimpeachable bohemian credentials; unequivocally avant-garde, yet reassuringly upper-middle in manner and voice; intellectually brilliant, yet emotionally tragic; deeply serious, but enormous fun. Then there's that fantastic, and fantastically English, look. And the whole Bloomsbury thing. And the whole proto-feminist thing. And on you go.

One birthday, a couple of years ago, Carol got me a book entitled "Maisons d'Ecrivains", an album of atmospheric photographs taken of writers' homes, now turned into museums. [The "touch-the-relic" implications of these modern-day shrines probably deserve more detailed scrutiny, however...] The featured authors included Karen Blixen, Jean Cocteau, Lawrence Durrell, William Faulkner, Knut Hamsun, Ernest Hemingway, Hermann Hesse, Selma Lagerlöf, Alberto Moravia, Vita Sackville-West, Dylan Thomas, Mark Twain, W.B. Yeats, Marguerite Yourcenar. Quite a guest list! Each of the homes was fascinating in its own way, but if there was one place you might actually like to live, it was Monk's House, the Woolfs' cottage in Rodmell, Sussex. Charming, tasteful, comfortable, bohemian; all low ceilings, tall sash windows, exposed beams, green distempered walls, elegantly distressed furniture, original paintings, scattered books and cushions and flowers, Omega pottery, a wild expanse of semi-kept ideal context in which to receive Vanessa Bell, Clive Bell, Roger Fry, Duncan Grant, Lytton Strachey, Maynard Keynes etc., etc. Let's face it: Virginia Woolf is what we all would like to be, only more so. A Sunday-supplement embodiment of the highest aspirations of the middle class, floating carelessly above mere material concerns, gifted with rare sensibility and acute intelligence, at the forefront of the latest developments in literature and life, receiving as an equal and in unaffected good taste the artistic and intellectual giants of the age.

Actually no. No one in their right mind would want to be Virginia Woolf and she clearly wasn't. In fact it was fear of her own madness that drove her to suicide. The autumn before last we walked past Monk's House while over visiting family in Lewes. Thankfully in a way, the museum was closed, but we walked through the lovely village of Rodmell and on down to the river Ouse. Impossible not to be touched by the thought of the suffering Virginia Woolf filling her pockets full of stones in order to drown herself in the muddy waters. Suicide always seems an unbearably irretrievable misunderstanding. One of my best friends at university killed himself aged 20. He too was particularly gifted. Can one be too sensitive for this world? Possibly, but it seems to me that the suicide suffers from an irrational overconfidence in his own powers of judgement. Life may seem to be utterly bleak, unceasing misery and suffering stretching endlessly into a dark tunnel of pointlessness, but could it be that maybe, just maybe, I've missed something, that I don't know everything about my own life. The fact is we don't really know anything about our own lives, which remain utterly beyond our own ken. It could be said that, in a way, suicide is the ultimate vanity: the definitive promotion of Self above Life. Still, probably wise not to rush to any too easy judgement.

The truth is that it was hardly surprising if Virginia Woolf was a bit funny. Traumatised by the premature deaths of her mother and, shortly after, her half-sister, terrorised by her tyrannical and self-pitying father, molested by her half-brothers, stifled by the smothering conventions of her Victorian upbringing, Virginia Woolf's life was a triumph of courage over adversity. She was, however, subject to manic-depressive interludes and schizophrenic tendancies. It seems she killed herself in order to escape the growingly insistent voices in her head. Incredibly sad - and incredibly ironic - that an author whose literary art focuses on the essential instability of personality, should succumb to her own mental fragility. But in a way inevitable. Her ferociously honest insights into human nature and the fluctuating complexities of the seemingly simplest human relations could only have been won by unflinching self-observation. Difficult not to suspect that this rare capacity for self-understanding, amounting almost to a sixth sense, was a function of her condition, which was a function of her experience, which was a function of the people and events in her life, all of which in turn where influenced by her own inner state... and so on. This, I believe, is the core of Virginia Woolf's insight - that what we believe to be firm and solid in ourselves, our own personality, is in fact a nucleus of temperament around which certain influences more or less randomly coalesce. And as these influence-globules jostle with each other in the stream of life, so they are constantly influencing and being influenced, changing and being changed. This is not an abstruse literary notion: any remotely sincere self-observation will reveal how, talking with different people, we ourselves become different people. Which immediately begs the question: what am I? With unwavering intellectual integrity, Virginia Woolf devoted her life and her writing to a permanent confrontation with this question. Could this process have ultimately led to the disintegration of personality which finally killed her? It's difficult not to suspect that it was at least a contributory factor. She herself admitted: "Leonard (her husband) says I shouldn't think about myself so much, I should think about outside things."
Is it possible to "think" your way to a true understanding of self? I would say almost certainly not. Associative thought is the very stuff out of which we construct our protean "personality". To seek to use that tool as a means to self-knowledge is like a dog trying to bite its own tail. Virginia Woolf's contemporary and fellow modernist, T.S. Eliot, wrestled with these same questions of the nature of human identity. He reaches similar conclusions about the heterogeneous nature of consciousness - "I know only a heap of broken images" or "These fragments I have shored against my ruin" (The Waste Land). But he goes further, pointing the way to a whole other dimension of understanding, through the abandoning of self in the direct experience of transcendental reality - "The awful daring of a moment's surrender". Was this ultimate experience of meaning denied to Virginia Woolf?
Reading "Moments of Being", a collection of her memoirs, it becomes clear that she certainly had intimations of this "other" reality. The editor, Jeanne Schulkind, spells out the point in an extremely helpful introduction:
...the individual in his daily life is cut off from 'reality' but at rare moments receives a shock. These shocks or 'moments of being' are not, as she imagined as a child, simply random manifestations of some malevolent force but 'a token of some real thing behind appearances'. The idea of a privileged moment when a spiritually transcendent truth of either personal or cosmic dimensions is perceived in a flash of intuition is, of course, a commonplace of religious experience and in particular of mystical traditions of thought...
Virginia Woolf formulated her own thinking as follows:
From this I reach what I might call a philosophy; at any rate it is a constant idea of mine; that behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we - I mean all human beings - are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art. "Hamlet" or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.
The pantheistic twist she gives to this idea points, I think, to the source of her despair. "God" is not an old man in a beard telling you you have to be good, but rather a way of expressing the sacred idea of different levels of meaning, different levels of reality. A "Moment of Being" is the intrusion of a higher into a lower level of reality. Abandon the idea of levels and everything is equally significant or equally senseless, depending on your mood. A dangerous situation for someone as susceptible as Virginia Woolf. [I also believe there is an inherent danger in the whole process of converting experience into words, especially in the case of experience of, for want of a better expression, a higher order. The ineffable is all too easily pulled down to the level of the literal, precious insight reduced to dust. We like the words, they give us a sense of control, but the real experience has been betrayed and we are left with an empty formula. Writers (and bloggers) beware.]
These, then, are a few thoughts on and around the subject of Virginia Woolf. Despite the Get-out-of-jail-free card I hold in the shape of Pierre Bayard, I am conscious of an inner teacher with a red biro writing "give examples!", "refer to the text!" I firmly resolve to return to the works. If I haven't stuck with them, it's probably because a) having got the basic point of stream-of-consciousness, the novels seem like so many variations on the same theme, and b) the necessarily introverted style involves, well, too much thinking of self, not enough outside things. That this is a rugby player's objection I am well aware. Are rugby players secretly afraid of Virginia Woolf?
[Postscript: My latest Virginia Woolf craze was kicked off by reading Mrs.Woolf and the Servants by Alison Light. I enjoyed it for the usual rather shameful class-conscious reasons. The basic point is an obvious one: for all their avant-garde intellectualism, Virginia Woolf and all her trendy friends were unable to shift for themselves. They needed servants to cook, clean and deal with all the everyday practicalities of life. The constant dependence on, and close proximity to these unintellectual, practical souls was a source of permanent stress. In Virginia Woolf's case they knew all her business in general and her history of mental illness in particular, a situation she sometimes felt almost unbearable. The book is basically an attack on snobbery and the undervaluing of seemingly humble lives. The implication is that VW couldn't have indulged her fine-madamy thoughts if she'd had to scrub her own floors and do her own laundry. Probably true, but I'm not quite sure where that leaves us - that writers and intellectuals aren't as important as they (and their readers) like to think they are, perhaps? Quite possibly, but there's a whiff of the re-education camp to this whole argument. The other question is: how emancipating is a feminism which depends on the drudgery of others - a relevant point in the modern dual-income world with its nannies and its home helps. Actually, VW's feminism was rather more subtle than the modern unreflected "parity-with-men" call. She believed that women should strive to be "non-participants in the Great Patriarchal Machine". Equal, but different.
Bitten by the bug, I went on to read "Moments of Being", a collection of VW's memoirs. I really enjoyed the bright, energetic, slightly gossipy style of "Reminiscences"- about her childhood and her mother, "A Sketch of the Past" covering her childhood and adolescence, but written much later in 1939, "22 Hyde Park Gate" - her later adolescence and the move to Bloomsbury, "Old Bloomsbury" about the Bloomsbury set, and finally the self-ironic "Am I a Snob?" The introductory essay by Jeanne Schulkind is particularly useful.
I then had a go at Lyndall Gordon's "Virginia Woolf - a Writer's Life". Wonderfully subtle and insightful, if a trifle over-written, it gives an intuitive sense of the subject's ambitions and dilemmas. Biography is a tricky genre - the wood can easily get lost for the trees as you hack your way through a detailed chronology without really getting a feel for the person. But I left this book with what I felt was a genuine understanding of what made VW tick.
I also saw "The Hours" when it came out. I seem to remember we laughed inappropriately and left early. Nicole Kidman was probably a bad idea.
Finally there's the film "Orlando" by Sally Potter, based on VW's novel of the same name. It's a few years since I saw it, but I remember it for its visual sumptiousness and its coy exploration of chameleon identity and sexuality in space and time. On the recommendation of my old Literature and Film lecturer from Leuven University I have a copy of the DVD. I could watch it again or, er, read the book even.]

Thursday, January 29, 2009

January Thoughts

Looking back over what is now three years of blogging, it's interesting to see where I started and where I've ended up. My original idea was that the blog should be a genuine diary, spontaneous jottings of daily experience, which would be amusing to myself and possibly to others. What I've ended up with is a series of set pieces focussed mainly on my holidays and my reading. A lot less constant work than daily jottings, perhaps, but even the set pieces sometimes haunt me like an uncompleted undergraduate essay. Why put myself under all that pressure? For pleasure? Well, re-reading some of the old pieces has given me genuine pleasure. It's the same pleasure as looking through an old photograph album; for a moment, time past comes alive again. I hope that some of this pleasure communicates itself to the reader. It's the only recompense that I can offer for your being used, in the sense that, if I didn't think that someone out there might just be reading this, I would probably succumb to my innate sloth and drop the whole project - which would be a shame for a serious reason which I shall try to explain.

At one level, like any literary enterprise, this diary is an attempt to give narrative shape to the seemingly arbitrary chaos of experience. In that sense it is an act of self-creation. In fact, in the ordinary way of things, we are constantly creating and recreating ourselves. But, the way in which we recreate ourselves is essentially selective, an interpretation, an edited version, often overly self-flattering, of the chaotic raw material of experience. One could almost say that our version of ourselves is a convenient fiction, practical to a degree for the purposes of living in society, but ultimately limiting. Which is why, running through this blog, there is a sort of subterranean counter-current: the idea of a dimension of thought which flows in the opposite direction to this habitual process of self-invention, and which can free us from the involuntary identification with our invented selves. In other words, not a narrowing but a widening of consciousness. That this wider consciousness can be experienced through a certain type of effort is the notion which, more or less explicitly, informs all of these writings. What is this effort? It is an intentional relaxation into a state of questioning, a state of "unknowing", a direct experience of the mystery of what it means to be alive. This effort is the antithesis of any "belief" - religious or secular. It could be called a sort of creative agnosticism, although vocabulary is largely counterproductive in an area where it is above all the experience of an active silence that can lead to a new awareness of being.

The real thrust of this blog is that this other dimension of being is not something distant and abstract, but something near, immediate and existentially compelling. All genuine experience points in this same direction: artistic experience, literary experience, musical experience, the experience of nature, the intense physical sensation of being alive which are the true wages of the mountaineer, the experience of love, the sudden insight into the profound significance of the apparently mundane, all invite us to a greater or lesser degree, in innumerable different ways, to abandon for a moment our invented selves and participate directly in the mystery of life itself. I would even suggest that the whole point of experience is missed if our intention, avowed or unavowed, is merely to store it in our memory banks. In so doing we become like the servant in the parable who buried his talent.

Why it is that a man must constantly be reminded to remember he is alive is a mystery within a mystery. My hope is that this blog can help me, even us, remember. Anyway, thank you for reading.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Scotland Again

Belgian friends, learning of our connection to Scotland and nervously curious about the possibility of a holiday there, often ask what the best season would be to visit. I hesitate to give my honest opinion. End October/early November strikes most people as more than just eccentric. Anyway, I'm pretty scared of possible come-backs of the type: "You recommended the late Autumn, but it rained and blew all day, every day and got dark half-way through the afternoon!" But sometimes you're lucky, and this time we were. The long, lingering autumn had left the trees incandescent with aureate foliage, while sudden late October snow-falls had cloaked the hills in a mantle of immaculate white. Then, a spell of high pressure brought clear, blue skies, which turned every casual glance into a perfect Scottish calendar view.

Nigel met me at Inverness station and was very soon whisking me (and Ben the dog) down narrow country lanes in the trusty Xantia (see earlier entry). His original intention was to head on down Glen Cannich, but it quickly became apparent that, even with all warp-engines on full thrape in the traditional Lyle manner, we were going to be strapped for time. We found ourselves admiring an icing-sugar hill to the north of the entrance to Glen Strathfarrar. We had a reasonable prospect of getting up and down it before it got dark. "Anyway, one hill's much like any other", I opined heretically and so we decided on Beinn a' Bha'ach Ard, a throat-clearer of a Corbett, weighing in at 862m.

One hill's much like any other

The first problem we encountered was that we didn't have a map. Resourcefully, Nigel revealed a hidden cartographic talent, artistically transcribing the sketch-map in his SMC Corbetts book onto the back of a screwed-up check-out receipt and we set off.

Nigel's sketch-map

All orientation difficulties thus solved, we headed west along the road by the River Farrar for a mile or so (so far, so good), before turning off at the power station. From there we followed a track up through golden birches and snowy heather out onto the open hillside. I asked after Nigel's mother. Nigel's father had recently died. "Well, she's been very busy dealing with all the practicalities, which has sustained her in a way." "And yourself?" "Well, they say it's a mercy it was all so sudden, but I can't help feeling cheated." "To be honest," I answered, "having lost both my parents, I think it's difficult to know what you feel. Everything seems to happen at a level which isn't really affected by our normal coping strategies." We continued on up in a pensive mood. Morbidly, we discussed the relative merits of a sudden as against a slow lingering death. On reflection, it strikes me that all death is sudden. One minute you're there and then you're gone. How utterly, utterly strange life is. You don't have to go far in any direction before bumping into the questions: Who am I? What am I?

On the slopes of Ben a' Bha'ach Ard. Beinn in foreground

Meanwhile, we were headed in the direction of the broad southern ridge of Beinn a' Bha'ach Ard. It was heavy enough going. A surface crust on the snow would just about sustain our weight - until it didn't - and we would plunge in up to the knee. We started to develop a Miss Smilla type feeling for the snow. That bit looks like it might just hold, that's obviously too powdery. And in this exigent fashion, we continued on up the slope, finally arriving at the top of the hill.

Our heroes at the summit

We stopped to take in the vast winter vista, then continued northward along the tops to Sgurr a' Phollain. A new degree of urgency entered into the proceedings, as it became obvious that the light was beginning to fail. We headed east for a bit, then, as suggested by our "map", set off down in a south-south-easterly direction. It quickly became clear that we weren't going to just skip off the mountain and nip home for an early tea. On this side of the hill the snow was much softer and deeper. Even heading downhill, we were labouring and floundering. There wasn't the faintest hope of finding any sort of path. We were drawn to the security of the burn, which in the gloaming, at least offered us some sort of guide to follow. But as we thrashed our way down, it became increasingly clear that we were drifting too far to the west. We should have been passing by the eastern shore of the little Loch na Beiste. Peering through the half-light, it was difficult to interpret the landscape. Was that the Loch? Hadn't we already passed it, covered in snow? Was that shadow a track? Occasional glimpses of lights from the roadside houses offered us some encouragement. Basically, we just plunged on down. We blundered into a deer fence. We climbed it straight, lifting Ben perilously over, only to discover there was a step a few yards away. Five minutes later we had to reclimb the fence to get out of the plantation! On we went, through forest now, and then down steep grassy slopes, tripping over the bracken. With less snow lower down, the going was easier, but in the dark it was hard to know where the going was taking us. With a sort of uncanny instinct, Nigel found the best place to cross the burn and led us up to the track by the lit farmhouse. Phew! Fifteen minutes later we arrived back at the car, sodden but relieved.

Nigel was staying at a mansion in the Black Isle with a group of scoutmasters and mistresses of his acquaintance. I was given to understand that it would be mal vu to appear late at dinner. White tie, it seemed, was, given the circumstances, not de rigueur, but nevertheless it was clearly expected that certain niceties be observed. I was quite happy to abandon my anti-establishment principles in exchange for a warm dining-room and a hot meal. In fact, we couldn't get there quickly enough as far as I was concerned. The only trouble was we couldn't see where we were going. The "trusty" Xantia's demister was on the blink. Peering and wiping, opening and closing of windows, nothing really helped. Nigel passed me a baby-wipe(!) with which I succeeded only in smearing a layer of cloying, scented, greasy soap across the inside of the windscreen. Using a unique combination of ESP and head-out-the-window techniques, we guessed our way across the Black Isle and finally arrived at the magnificent, tastefully down-at-heel Poyntzfield House.

Poyntzfield House

I was a bit nervous about meeting the whole party. I felt a bit like a new boy arriving in some hellish prep school. Everybody, except me, knows what's going on. Everybody knows each other, everybody knows the school rules and, more importantly still, everbody is tacitly au fait with the unspoken codes of conduct. My anxiety was quite unwarranted, of course; everyone, including matron and the headmaster, was very charming and very welcoming, quickly putting me at my ease. I have sometimes thought it would be great to rent a big place and have all your mates come for a week. In fact, in my hippy(-ish) youth, I imagined it might be very stimulating to live in a commune, where a group of like-minded and creative people could strike sparks off each other. A close friend of mine did actually live in a commune in Copenhagen in the late sixties, early seventies. He said that, at its best, it was just that, a crescendo of creativity. But it fell down on the obvious things: who does the cleaning? who does the dishes? It's just a question of organisation, I hear you answering; but there's no more than a cigarette paper between necessary organisation and a rigid set of rules. Yet a straight-jacket of rules is what destroys the spirit of spontaneity which we (presumably) are seeking. It's a dilemma, and a dilemma we face whether or not we live in a group. In myself, I veer between psychotic control-mania and casualness to the point of irresponsibility. There are times, however, when I have felt the influence of a sort of organic order, while still being free, freer than normal in fact, to be myself. This is not a state I can impose, but I nevertheless need somehow to be deliberately open to it...

Dinner was served to a couple of dozen people around the large mahogany table. It was a well-ordered, but gargantuan affair. I ate heartily, but with a degree, I like to think, of polite decorum. Nigel, however, gave uninhibited rein to his trencherman talents. In this area he is peerless. Hefty second portions were followed by thirds and, as supplies failed to keep up, he resorted shamelessly to snaffling up others' leavings. Confronted with an anguished choice of pudding, Nigel compromised and had all three! Admittedly, we had an ambitious programme for the next day, but it would take a couple of Himalayan 8,000ers to work off that lot!

Next morning's breakfast was almost as elaborate. Grapefruit, porridge, bacon and eggs, toast and marmelade etc. etc. I was anxious to get going, but Nigel had deviously opted for a visit to the far end of Glen Strathfarrar. "They don't open the gate until 9 o'clock. No point in rushing." I acquiesced, sceptically, suspecting that we would be finishing in darkness again. We set off into the fine morning, but with the threat of cloud coming in from the north. Bombing cross-country, it was not yet 9 o'clock when we arrived at the estate lodge at the start of the glen (the previous day's starting point). With jobsworth pedantry the lady-gatekeeper refused to let us through before the appointed hour. We had a lot of remote hills to climb and every minute counted if we were to get back before the gate shut again at six in the evening. But she was not to be persuaded. Dante must have a special place in Inferno for these people. Finally we were allowed past the barrier and we were soon rattling up the glen.

We drove through scenes of breathtaking beauty. The massive glens to the west of Loch Ness are renowned for their loveliness. Years previously Carol and I had spent a few days camping in Glen Affric. I remember idyllic (and "refreshing") early-morning skinny-dipping in Loch Affric itself. But, if anything, our drive up Glen Strathfarrar was even more outrageously spectacular than those magical spring days of 1982. The intense autumn hues intermingled with the dignified stands of ancient Caledonian pine, both emerging dramatically against the soaring background of the snowy mountains, suddenly so much taller in their winter raiment. Deer were everywhere. Young stags grazing by the roadside would suddenly start at the approach of the car and trot away, proudly bearing their antler-crowns. It was as though we were drinking in a sort of condensed elixir of Scotland, the whole landscape imbued with that special Scottish quality, which I can only describe as a yearning nostalgia for the infinite. Words are inadequate, but those that have sensed this same "Spirit of the Hills" will understand what I mean.

Then suddenly we were lost. Our map had failed to distinguish between the metalled road and the land-rover track. Following what we thought was the most direct route, we forded the river and found ourselves bumping across the open moorside. We were now heading south, when we should have been heading west. We back-tracked until we found a route which took us in the right direction, but it was very slow going. We passed a lonely road-mender in a digger. We could read from the ironic smirk he gave us from his cabin, that we were not the first to have unwittingly eschewed the easy convenience of a tarmac surface. Still, having tested the terrain-going qualities of the old Xantia to the limit, we finally made it to the parking place at the little power station in Glean Innis an Loichel. We got out our kit and made ready. With confident, sweeping gestures of the hand, Nigel indicated his preferred itinerary for the day. A quick pull up to the bealach at the head of the Alt an Eas Bhàin Mhoir, a short detour to knock off An Riabhachan, before proceeding to an elegant traverse of Sgurr na Lapaich and Carn nan Gobhar, finally dropping down the hillside and easily back to the car. The fact that these desolate hills happened to be Munros was clearly purely coincidental. I kept my own counsel, merely drawing attention to the fact that we would need to be back at the car by 4.30 if we were to be sure to get out of the glen before the boom came down.

It must have been at least 10.30 before we finally set off. The going was easy enough at first, as we followed a well-laid stalkers' path up the glen. But, turning off the main track, we followed a sketchier route diagonally up the hillside. The higher we climbed, the deeper was the snow. By teetering on the outside edge of the track, however, we were able to avoid the heavier going. Just as any discernible track ran out, we arrived at the edge of the corrie. Routefinding became more complicated. We sought to skirt the deepest drifts, while at the same time avoiding unnecessary height gains. The rule of thumb seemed to be to avoid the very white snow and walk where the greatest number of grass-tufts showed through. In this way we picked our way to Loch Mor, a scene of lonely beauty and desolate purity. From a strictly landscape point of view, the mountain lochans are most often far finer than the summits. Perhaps I should draw up a table of the 500 best mountain lochs in Scotland. They would be called the Smiths, of course. A badge bearing the embossed emblem of a shrivelled male organ would be awarded to anyone who'd swum in all 500 of them! [It's probably already been done. Didn't Tom Weir write a book?]

Loch Mor

We stopped for a bite to eat and pondered our position. Swimming was obviously out, except for Ben. Another thing was equally obvious: there wasn't the faintest hope of our completing our projected route within the available time. It was now a toss-up between An Riabhachan and Sgurr na Lapaich. We opted for An Riabhachan. Nigel adduced some contrived topographical argument in its favour, but the bottom line was transparently obvious. An Riabhachan was the only Munro on our list that couldn't easily be climbed another day from Glen Cannich.

We set off round the eastern side of the lochan. On more than one occasion we were deceived by the stalks of grass and found ourselves plunging chest-deep into snow-choked stream-beds. We would wrestle ourselves free of the snow's grasp and blunder heavily on. It was hard work and it didn't get any easier as we hit the steeper slopes leading up to the col. Arriving at the col, it was blowing hard, as the wind funnelled through the gap between the hills. We adjusted our dress accordingly and set off in the direction of An Riabhachan. I started off across the first snow-slope, plodding unimaginatively away, well within my comfort zone. Behind me, however, I could sense Nigel getting impatient. At this gentlemanly pace there was a real prospect of his being cheated of his prize. Did he suspect me of deliberate anti-Munroist sabotage? Did he see me as a climbing anarchist striking a blow for Pointless Mountaineering? On some thinly-veiled routefinding pretext he forged past me and was soon disappearing off into the middle distance. I had no option but to start picking up my feet. With the tops clouding over and the weather clearly deteriorating it was probably a good idea to keep him in view. Actually, it wasn't a bad climb. The ridge steepened to a rocky edge and we were frequently forced onto the steep northern flank to avoid toiling exhaustingly through the heavy drifts. From the cairn at the top of the ridge we carried on through the mist to the summit. I had the map in a map case around my neck. Caught in the wind it acted as a propellor, winding up the chord around my neck until I near choked. Arriving at the summit, I had ignominiously to ask Nigel to release me from my garotte. Nigel took a photograph which subsequently revealed itself to be an experimental video of my feet: it might do something at some festival of avant-garde film. We returned to the subsiduary top, took a bearing and headed due north down the westerly arm of the corrie. We had a vague idea of finding a route back down to the corrie itself, but as we emerged from the cloud, it became obvious that we would do best to continue on down the long flank where the going was easier, the wind having blown away much of the snow. Once clear of the crags to our right, we set off cross-country in an east-north-easterly direction with a view to rejoining the original path up. I'd imagined I would at least be able to hold my own with Nigel on the way down. Far from it. He had the bit between his teeth and was going hell-for-leather. I struggled to keep up as we slithered and stumbled and plunged and bounded down and across the trackless hillside. It started to snow perfectly formed flakes, borne horizontally on the wind, like a souvenir snowstorm rotated through ninety degrees. Meanwhile, the wild cloud-driven hills to the north were illuminated by an unreal, other-worldly blue light. I was awakened from my aesthetic reveries by Nigel calling back to me that he had found the path. He waited to allow me to catch up and we continued on down together, crossed the burn, and hit the main track. The easier going seemed to trigger the turbo-charger in Nigel's bionic leg. There was no keeping up with him. At one stage I tried actually jogging, but quickly concluded that it would be less distressing to accept reaching the car a few minutes after him. Arriving, I threw myself into the moving vehicule, rucksack and all, as we careered round the bends and bombed down the straights. Nostrils flaring at the prospect of another slap-up country-house dinner, Nigel wasn't taking any chances. No way was he wasn't going to be locked out on the hill for the night. Following the metalled road this time, we rallyed our way around and over the Strathfarrar dams and on down the glen. Deer loomed scarily out of the night into the beam of our headlights. Unperturbed, Nigel raced on through the darkness. We reached the lodge gate a very generous fifteen minutes early.

The easy dawdle up An Riabhachan

Back at Poyntzfield we bathed and changed for dinner. The vast repast was followed by organised parlour-games in the gigantic sitting-room, the highlight of which was a wine-and-cheese guessing game. Although highly fancied as a "continental", I disappointed my team-mates with my hapless ignorance. Cheaply, I retreated behind the "I-only-know-expensive-wines-and-French-cheese" ploy. An old trick, but I escaped unchallenged.

The next day I had to catch the five o'clock train from Inverness, so we would have to be off the hill by three in the afternoon. We opted for a shortish day in Strathconon. So did the rest of the house-party. A convoy of vehicles headed up the glen and parked at Strathanmore. Our goal was Meall nan Uan, an elegant Corbett. It occured to me that, by setting off ahead of the main group, I could at least pretend to have the hills to myself. I followed the track up the slope. It took an agreeably shallow line. Assuming it would take a generous zig-zag back in the proper direction, I allowed myself to be tempted and followed it across the Allt an t-Strathan Mhoir where, neglected by the deer that had presumably made it, it promptly disappeared entirely. I had to contour steeply back to the proper route, over slippery rocks and through deep heather. No tragedy in itself, except that a sizable proportion of the party had rashly followed me on my idiotic detour. I felt like a retarded Pied Piper. However, I was still in front with the virgin slopes ahead of me. I plodded steadily on up. As the angle got steeper and the snow deeper, I became increasingly reconciled to sacrificing my lonely commune with nature for the convenience of having someone else break the trail. Sweating from the work, I stopped to take off a jersey and happily relinquished the lead. Our group stopped for a short rest behind the shelter of some rocks just short of the ridge as Nigel and Jane caught up. We spent the rest of the morning on a glorious winter ridge-walk, first up Creag Ruadh and then on to the enticing summit of Meall nan Uan. At the summit, we sat on scattered rocks and ate our lunch. I got to talking with one of the party, who shyly confessed to being one of my blogfans (bless you sir!) Oh really, and what bits do you like best? Oh, the bits where you make fun of Nigel, of course! I felt a defensive pang towards my oldest friend, but it quickly became obvious that Nigel is held in great affection by all, not least because of his idiosyncracies.

The enticing summit of Meall nan Uan

And so we headed back down, flying, as it were, along the perfect ridge. There was a slight regret that we didn't have the time to continue on with the "élite" group, which was doing the full round of the corrie to take in Sgurr a' Mhuilinn, but, then again, one hill's much like any other! Back at the car, I quickly got changed into civvies and stuffed my muddy gear into my pack. I stashed it in the back of the Xantia, got into the back seat with Jane in front, and before I'd even closed the door, Nigel had dropped the clutch and we were on our way, so we thought, to Inverness station. For the sake of variety he decided to take the quiet back road. Thrashing along at the usual full tilt, he suddenly had to brake violently as he pulled in to allow an oncoming vehicule along the single-track. The engine promptly died. We got out of the car and stood around vaguely. The Xantia was well past its prime but still not old enough to be the sort of car you can fix. However, as it transpired, hanging around seemed to do the trick. Nigel turned the engine over in the spirit of desperate hope - and it fired! Everybody back in and flat out down the narrow lane. We continued in this way for a mile or so. Then the engine cut out again. Despite violent attempts to bump it, Nigel couldn't coax it back to life. We limped into a passing place and pondered our next move. I was resigning myself to missing my train and had even started phoning to that effect, when a chunky 4x4 appeared from the other direction and drew up alongside to commiserate. The driver was a friendly southerner with a poney-tail. He had something of the ageing rock star about him. He could have been the model for "Celeb" in Private Eye. We explained our train problem. No problem. I'll just drop off a couple of things at my place and come back and take you to the station. It's the sort of gesture that restores your faith in human nature. True to his word, he was back within the twenty minutes. I felt a bit awkward about abandoning Nigel and Jane to their fate, but they urged me on my way. I didn't insist.

Thanks to my guardian angel I made the train. Embarrassed, I offered him money for petrol but he wouldn't hear of it. The whole situation was redolent of my old hitch-hiking days in the early seventies, when lift-givers and lift-takers shared an unspoken bond of non-conformist sympathy. I remember queues of hitchers at certain key junctions. Where are they now? All too rich? Or too scared? Something magical has been lost, it seems to me.

And so all ended happily. Nigel was fully insured against breakdown and the car had nothing more serious than air in the fuel lines, I made it to my haute cuisine dinner appointment with the family at the Roman Camp in Callander, and, most importantly, inspired by natural beauty, constant friendship and human decency, I have taken renewed courage to live till I die.